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The American Church in Black and White

The American Church in Black and White
Tori Williams Douglass

Tori Williams Douglass

Contributor at Christianity Now
By day, Tori works in a research lab that focuses on ADHD and autism. At night she tackles issues of race, Evangelical Christianity, mental health, and trauma in her writing. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her two young sons. She can be found on Twitter @toriglass.
Tori Williams Douglass

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Evangelical Christianity is undermined by the injustices it has dished out to black Americans since the founding of this country.

Genocide, enslavement, torture, and white racial terrorism were not only the country’s original birth defect, they were the original birth defect of the American church. A quick Google search will show you many of the most popular preachers, evangelists, and abolitionists were also brutal slavers and white supremacists.

Instead of owning this sin— acknowledging, repenting, and making restitution — the American church largely ignores its own history. The church in this country has a very convenient and severe case of racial amnesia.

Many American Christians insist that this nation was founded on Christian values (which ones?) and was only successful in its revolution because God had blessed her.

While a few small colonies overthrowing the greatest superpower on the planet certainly seems like evidence of the Almighty’s blessing, to follow this logic, one also has to grapple with the fact that this blessing is also on the society that intentionally pursued and successfully integrated systems of torture, brutality, and abuse in the form of slavery for Black Americans and genocide of Native people.

If God blesses America, we must conclude that Black and Native people are mere footnotes in His grand plan for the success and prosperity of the white races. If God blessed America, despite rampant, codified white supremacy, God himself must be a white supremacist. If God blessed America, God blessed only its white inhabitants and doesn’t give a damn about anyone with dark skin.

If God blessed America, we must conclude that He hates dark skinned people as much as she does. If God blessed America, that means that God loves white people the most, any suffering the rest of us must endure to ensure their comfort and happiness is part of the omnibenevolent plan.

If God blessed America, that means God sides with the powerful in their reckless pursuit of might and wealth over the powerless.

If God blessed America, that means God condones or approves of any form of violence, no matter how horrific, being inflicted on human bodies that the state or individuals have deemed inferior.

This is a God I have no intention of serving, loving, or obeying.

What’s more concerning is that this racist, sadist, white supremacist God is the god many Americans worship without so much as a second thought.

Of course those of us who have seen this complicity quickly recognize that the only God America worships is herself.

America made god in her own image: white, powerful, heartless, crushing, cruel, indifferent, abusive, and then claimed this idol was not only just, and moral, but Christlike. It is inconceivable that the consequences of these vile beliefs might be something other than century after century of white racial terrorism inflicted on brown and black bodies.

Christians and those adjacent to Christianity have to address the issue of this sin head on if we are ever to get to a place of true unity. White American Christians will often tell you the truth hurts. I agree, confronting the sin of complicity in white supremacy hurts. Maybe it hurts your feelings, your pride, your ego. It hurts me too.

Whiteness, for a Christian, is a sin and must be repented of. Whiteness is a position of superiority, not of humility. It’s telling that white Christians encourage their black brothers and sisters to “subjugate their blackness to Jesus,” but they make no such demands of white Christians. Whiteness is framed as neutrality, while blackness is framed as otherness, something unnatural which needs to be repented of.

What does repenting of whiteness look like? I am not sure. I have never been white myself. But the fact that you are likely bristling in self-defense right now tells me that you probably need to do it.

Here are few ways you can repent (turn away from) whiteness, clothe yourself in humility, and take a humble stance on the issue of race.

  1. Listen. Let us speak. The narratives you have internalized, intentionally and unintentionally, by growing up in an explicitly white supremacist culture, are harmful. They are not “facts.” They may be data stripped of context, but that stripping of context also strips of us our humanity. We are not numbers. We are not violent crime stats. We are human beings. Our experiences don’t have to cater to your preferred worldview.
  2. Jesus is a black man. Just once, this doesn’t have to be a forever commitment. Read the Gospels through the lens of Jesus as a black man —falsely accused, unfairly tried, and executed by the state. Read the Gospels through the lens of the American justice system as a parallel to the Roman Empire.
  3. Recognize the theme of restitution is a Biblical command. I think this concept makes white evangelical Christians bristle, maybe even more than hearing or reading the words “white people.” Individual harms and systemic, institutional harms require restitution. God is a God of justice. Race was used to discriminate so race should be used for restitution. Scripture tells us to give cheerfully. Can you imagine what this country would look like if evangelical Christians gave cheerfully to make restitution for the generational harms that have been perpetrated by white American Christians against their black neighbors. It doesn’t matter that it is “not your fault” and your family didn’t own slaves.

Only when you find whiteness indefensible as a construct can you truly claim that you are not holding your own whiteness as an idol. I imagine this would look and feel like not immediately becoming defensive when someone criticizes white people or whiteness. Speaking from experience, when you take a position of humility when someone talks about your race, and you can see yourself as an individual but also part of the group, it’s not difficult to avoid becoming offended. White people usually talk about black people using coded language like gang violence, thugs, but I can accept that while those criticisms may not be justified, they aren’t automatically an indictment of me as a mixed race black woman. I can separate those things out and I have to, so I know that white Christians can do the same.

I know that the typical response from white people is, “Well, why don’t black people also have to do this? Anything that white people have to do, black people have to do as well. Otherwise it’s racism.”

This isn’t the case. If you’d made your way into the emergency department with a broken arm at the same time that several victims of a fire covered in severe burns are rushed in,there’s a rush of confusion, and finally the admitting nurse gets you to your room to be examined by a doctor. A frazzled doctor walks in to examine your arm. You explain how you fell off your ladder after drinking a few and the doctor nods and says, “Yes, I understand. But at this hospital, it’s one of our values to treat everyone the same. So I am going to give you a prescription for burn ointment and you’ll be all set.”

“But,” you say, “You didn’t listen to me. I BROKE my arm. I didn’t BURN my arm.”

“Yes. But it’s unfair to treat you differently than our other patients. WE understand that what happened in your past is different than what’s happened to others, but to treat you differently because of that harm would be to perpetuate further injustice.”

We can all immediately recognize how crazy it would be to have this conversation with a doctor. However, this is similar to the way white Christians respond when black Christians ask to address specific harms caused by racism.

Racism isn’t unkind words and mean looks. It is silencing or ignoring people who have been harmed explicitly on the basis of their race. It’s claiming that people who have been living with the scars of intergenerational trauma literally encoded in our DNA are simply trying to “cause division” and distract the wiser, more spiritual white Christians from “the true Gospel.” It’s rolling your eyes, concluding we are exaggerating because you “didn’t see it that way.” It’s a general attitude of self-righteous elitism.

These actions are perpetuating racism within the church. They need to be repented of. White Christians need to, individually AND collectively, repent and make restitution for the ways they and their ancestors have employed silencing as a form of violence against those who have experienced harm.

We are not allowed to be black in white churches. We are supposed to be silent about issues that affect us due to our skin color. Why is this? Is it because discussing racial harm makes white Christians feel guilty of their spiritual heritage? I’m not sure. What I do know is that being black in segregated white churches makes white people so uncomfortable that they choose to silence us, and call our pain “division.” The very pain that wouldn’t exist if, as Dr. Eric Mason likes to say, the white church had been the church instead of being the white church.